Mayday, mayday – Arsenal catch fire

Arsenal 1-0 Manchester United

Well, that was fun.

Fresh out of the title race and with the handbrake well and truly off, Arsenal put in the kind of shift and performance that – had they happened more frequently this season – would have been the benchmark.

That our benchmark has in fact been drawing or losing from winning positions, or not taking our chance to edge ahead even when the opportunity is presented to us on a silver salver, makes yesterday all the more frustrating. You could spend months turning yourself inside-out mulling over the What Ifs if you wanted to, but it wouldn’t get you anywhere, so what’s the point?

Best I think to take it as a fine one-off performance, and it really was.

Maybe it was the glorious sunshine, refreshing breeze and the glow of Bremen’s finest export, but I was in a state of almost horizontal calm before the match. This is what happens when you don’t expect too much.

From the off though, you could tell that Arsenal were up for it, with both Walcott and Wilshere squandering presentable chances early on. Ramsey, Song and Wilshere were having a ball in midfield, with Djourou and Koscielny untroubled at the back. The latter made one particularly thunderous interception on Fabio. Tackling at its finest.

The referee was doing his best to get in the way of Arsenal passes wherever possible – one of them even looked like a nifty backheel – and was clearly too busy honing his positional interceptions to spot Nemanja Maradona’s handball. Rooney was bubbling with frustration; always a good sign.

The goal, when it came, was not dissimilar to Arshavin’s against Barcelona. Van Persie waited and waited, before passing to the unmarked Ramsey to slot it home.

Hats off to the Welshman. For my money it was his finest Arsenal performance to date, against tough opposition, and if there’s anyone who better deserved the catharsis of a goal then I’d like to know who it is.

His partnership with Wilshere, sitting in front of the equally excellent Song, really blossomed. That we did not miss Fabregas yesterday says it all, and bodes extremely well. For me, the Wilshere/Ramsey partnership was the stand-out highlight of an all-round impressive performance.

Ramsey also seems more vocal than I remember him being – when Sagna made a clearance in the first half, he was first to him to slap him on the back. It’s easy to see why Wales took a punt on making him their captain.

OK, so the last 30 mins was a bit hairier, but we held on well and can be grateful that the referee was at least as poor for Man Utd as he was for us. Clichy’s clumsy tackle on Owen would have been given as a penalty more times than it wouldn’t. But the old saying that things even themselves out was very apt here – one penalty apiece not given – and we were well worth our win.

Clichy – prone to this – did otherwise have an excellent game, particularly from an attacking perspective. Szczesny showed once again that while he needs to work on distribution – he wasted several goal kicks at the end by kicking them all the way to van der Sar – he is an imposing keeper and a fine shot-stopper. We do not need a new number one in the summer.

Anything left to achieve this season? Of course. As well as cementing an automatic Champions League place, which is well within our grasp if we play like that, I’d like to see us win all of our final three games of the season. Should we do that, it would be the first time this campaign that we will have won four league games in a row.

Apparently, it was the most youthful team fielded by any side this season in the Premier League – averaging 23 years and 296 days. No doubt the boss will see that as vindication of his approach. It’s hard to disagree based on yesterday’s performance, but that doesn’t mean some hard work needs to be done on the training pitch and with the cheque book over the summer to ensure that performances like that are the norm and not the exception.

Enjoy your bank holiday – I know I will.

Wenger’s numbers don’t come up in Pottery lottery

Stoke City 3-1 Arsenal

I said yesterday that Wenger had little choice but to gamble in today’s FA Cup game. Gamble he did – and he lost.

As expected, he chose a mixture of youth and experience. In the young corner were Emmanuel-Thomas (first team debut), Coquelin (a lick of Milk Cup only) and Eastmond (one Premier League start).

At the other end of the spectrum were Silvestre and Campbell, with the rest – young but in some cases very experienced – making up the XI.

Was it a line-up that was ever going to trouble a physical and experienced team like Stoke? It’s easy to be dismissive in retrospect, but when I saw the line-up I thought we stood a chance if we played to our potential.

Therein lies the rub, though. We never did play to our potential. I accept that the game was fairly even until Stoke’s second, but apart from Denilson’s deflected equaliser, I cannot think of a single time when we made Sorensen earn his money.

Yes, Stoke played very well. Collectively, we could not cope. But too many of our players were off colour too. At the back, Fabianski was dreadful. On today’s performance, it’s easy to see how Almunia – hardly a Spanish Gordon Banks himself – remains unchallenged between the sticks. He punched rather than caught, stuttered on his line; he looked as if he’d won a competition to keep goal. The rest of the defence struggled, with the exception of Sol Campbell who performed admirably given how little football he has played recently. Traore was all over the place, Coquelin got better after a nervy start and Silvestre – well I suppose he tried hard.

In the midfield, I thought Eastmond did OK. In fact, all three rookies – Emmanuel-Thomas, Coquelin, Eastmond – did OK given the circumstances.

We were especially toothless up front though. I am – and remain – a big fan of Theo Walcott but on today’s performance he shouldn’t be worrying about his England place, he should be worrying about getting into the Arsenal side. He was embarrassingly ineffectual. I know it’s not his ideal kind of game and I know he’s been injured to the point of distraction, but he looked lost today. Carlos Vela had a rotten day too. Emmanuel-Thomas intrigues me though. His first touch wasn’t great and as debuts go, it was a tough one, but there’s definitely something there – power, desire, a different tack to the usual Arsenal striker (and he’s not even a striker). I’d like to see more of him.

The triple substitution made little difference.

So overall, it was never going to be a team that could walk the tie without each player playing to his maximum. The performance never arrived. We deserved to lose.

What to make of it? It’s a huge lost opportunity if you ask me. It’s all very well saying we can concentrate on the league and the European Cup, but they’re the hardest ones of all to win.

After the game, Wenger touched again on his reasons for playing the team he played. “Sagna, Vermaelen and Clichy will all be back for Aston Villa and they could have missed it if they had played today” he said.

Perhaps so. Maybe the circumstances – huge injury list and four high-octane games looming – demanded it.

Still out the cup though. Big gamble. Big loss.

Electric Watt switches Arsenal on

Arsenal 2-0 WBA

Strictly speaking, this is no match review. I couldn’t listen to the game, I didn’t hunt around for a stream in a haystack and I’ve not got time to watch the re-run on Arsenal.com. So seeing as, at the time of writing, all I’ve done is flitted in and out of Twitter, I’ve not got a lot of insight into the game itself.

I will however say three things:

1) Six of the starting eleven were born in the 1990s. This, speaking as a man who cried after Graham Rix missed his penalty against Valencia in the 1980 Cup Winners’ Cup final, a mere four days after we’d also lost the FA Cup final, makes me feel exceptionally old. It is however testament to the extraordinary talent bubbling underneath the surface at Arsenal these days.

Incidentally, another two players were born in 1989, and one in 1987, leaving Senderos (1985) and Silvestre (1977) as the two oldies. To most of the starting eleven, Silvestre must be so ancient as to be from another planet (no jokes please).

2) 56,592 is an amazing turnout, it really is, even with tickets at a bargain £10. It proves that the ticket pricing is spot on, and as ever it lets people who cannot otherwise get hold of tickets come to the game. Credit where it is due to Arsenal – though how nice would it be if they dropped season ticket prices too?

I don’t want to bang on excessively about the past (well OK – I do), but I never saw a crowd that big at Arsenal until we moved to the Grove. I remember going to the opening game of the season in ’87 when it was a lockout an hour before the game, and that was just shy of 55,000, some of whom were sitting on the roof of the north bank. But crowds that big were rare.

My point is, throughout most of the 80s we probably averaged between 25,000 and 35,000, so let’s not take the huge crowds of the Grove era for granted. It’s a fantastic turnout.

3) Sanchez Watt has a fantastic name.

So – a win against the Championship leaders, a goal for new boy Watt and the returning Mexican Vela (another to strike off my Injurywatch column – fingers crossed).

A good night’s work, overall.